Monday, September 29, 2008

Exclusive! From The Last Free City

Writers as a breed have a superstitious aversion to showing their work in progress to the wider world. I share this disquiet only to a certain extent. Our readers are interested in what we are up to, and from time to time there is little harm in gratifying their curiosity. With that in mind, today I am posting a short excerpt from The Last Free City. It is suitable for such violence in several respects: it is from a high authorial point of view; it gives away nothing of plot; it introduces no significant characters; it is largely standalone; and there is a high probability that it will not survive into the final draft. It is as it is, and comes with no warranty from the author...

The wealth of Taratanallos—and hence the basis for the lives of measured protocol and carefully graduated luxury of the Specchio—was born out of trade. The twenty-four houses jealously guarded monopolies of tariffed goods among themselves, enriching themselves from customs duties as well as forays into entrepreneurship.

The city’s status as the trading centre of the world might be thought to lend the city cosmopolitan air, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Those residents of the city who were not Tarat citizens—traders from other cities; diplomats; artists, actors and other disreputables—lived in a demarcated area of the city known as ‘the Wrill’. While not barred from the Argentium or the Prieko, their presence was not encouraged, and residents of the Wrill took no part in the cultural life of the city.

Outsiders sometimes took this as proof of the intolerable pride of the Specchio, that they should refuse to mingle with those who contributed so much to their coffers. Such a view, playing as it did on the popular perception of the Specchio as effete lordlings, concerned only with their fetes, their duels and their striving for notional advantage over their rivals, naturally gained a widespread currency.

Nonetheless this view was wholly false. While the Specchio occupied themselves in their introspective pastimes, there was a grimly practical reason for the existence of the Wrill: plague. More than any city in Mondia, Taratanallos was a nexus, a meeting point for traders from every city and culture. A disease brought in on a ship from Paladria, say, could run through the population in a month, and once established amongst those with no acquired immunity, would prove almost impossible to eradicate. The Wrill, therefore, served at once as a sink-hole and a quarantine, albeit a liberal one. On those occasions when plague broke loose—fortunately rare—the Consiglio enforced harsh movement restrictions, and those living in the Wrill perforce must wait out the contagion, or leave the city on ships provided for the purpose.

The arrangements were some way short of foolproof. Outbreaks of disease were years, sometimes decades, apart, and the smooth commercial functioning of the city would be impaired if those living within the Wrill were unable to travel. Hence the so-called “soft quarantine” which discouraged foreigners from mingling with the city folk, but did not forbid it.

That winter, at a time when plague had not been seen in the city for half a generation, an outbreak of disease took hold in the Wrill, and through deficient vigilance on the part of the Consiglio, made an incursion not only into the Prieko but also the Argentium. The countermeasures of quarantine were all the more rigorous for having been neglected in the first place, but by the time the Masavory were able to ring the great bell marking the all-clear, twenty-seven members of the Specchio were dead, including Thrinko, head of House Zamilio and father of Sanoutë, and Lustenaijo, who had once been President of the Masavory.

Those who remained were prompted, according to their temperaments, to reflect on the fleeting precariousness of mortality, or to throw themselves into their revels with redoubled seriousness. There is no disaster so severe that it has no beneficiaries, however. The fourteen year-old Lupus, the son of Thrinko, could now style himself ‘the Dignified Lupus’ and sit on the Masavory as the head of his house; and while his elevation was presumably purchased with some grief, the Viators—who saw attendances rise with a consequent increase in alms—enjoyed the chink of silver while incurring no compensating disadvantages.

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